It isn’t about the celebrations – Arsenal’s Champions League progress shows a crucial step is behind them

Mikel Arteta tried to put on a managerial demeanour as he congratulated his players on going the distance and beating Porto, but ultimately, he couldn’t keep the joyous smile off his face. It was all too visible as he came out of the dressing room and then sat down in front of the media.

Arteta was thrilled.

Those who speak of the exacting standards of winners might say that’s a bit much for a mere Champions League last-16 penalty shootout victory over a side Arsenal should be beating fairly easily, in the way this side have generally had their celebrations policed.

There was obviously much more to it than that. It wasn’t even that the club had reached the quarter-finals, either. It was that the team had made another crucial step, with this one admittedly a giant leap.

This is the gleefully intoxicating thing about a team that is on top. Liverpool will know it well from Jurgen Klopp’s first years. Even Arsenal’s great rivals at Tottenham Hotspur will be familiar with it from the Mauricio Pochettino era.

It is the excitement and sense of possibility that comes from seeing another landmark left behind. The team feels like it can just keep going.

There’s almost nothing like it in football. It’s certainly when a club is at its happiest that the imagination is sparked. That was very much the atmosphere at Arsenal on Tuesday. You could feel it in the crowd.

The team was one round closer to a Champions League final but also a few steps closer to a sense of completion. That doesn’t mean they will ever get there, of course, but the point is that they can keep progressing towards that horizon.

It was why Arsenal’s most ragged display in some time was also the most heartening. It wasn’t about the performance but the willingness to persevere.

Mikel Arteta celebrates after the shootout (Getty)
Mikel Arteta celebrates after the shootout (Getty)

While an Arsenal elimination here wouldn’t have been a disaster given they are top of the Premier League, it would have been so dispiriting that it could have slowed all momentum. It also would have left them with a lot to dwell on in the long 19-day break until the next match, which happens to be the biggest of the season in a trip to Manchester City. There would have been inevitable talk about buckling when it mattered again, all the more so since Porto seemed such a forgiving draw.

There’s also the fact of the club’s underwhelming Champions League history, given the last 16 was where Arsene Wenger most often fell. Even their greatest-ever manager only got past that stage five times in 19 attempts. Arteta has done it in his first.

The manner of it also proved a honing experience in another way, as it represented the first time that this young Arsenal side had come through such a classically tense and tactical European tie. For all the rancour between the two clubs – and even the two managers – Arteta may be appreciative of this game, because Porto posed a different challenge. Very few sides play the way that Sergio Conceicao’s team does in the modern game, and it is good to get through... if you get through.

Arsenal did exactly that and there was another important leap for the man most responsible. David Raya was the hero, so conspicuously and happily congratulated by the man he replaced, Aaron Ramsdale.

Arteta even spoke about how the new goalkeeper persevered in his own way.

David Raya makes a crucial save to deny Galeno to secure Arsenal’s place in the next round (Getty)
David Raya makes a crucial save to deny Galeno to secure Arsenal’s place in the next round (Getty)
Raya’s second save sent the home team and fans wild (Getty)
Raya’s second save sent the home team and fans wild (Getty)

“David had some difficult moments to start but he stood up and showed incredible personality.”

Here, he got down and showed some heroics. It was Raya’s two saves that ultimately made the difference, to go with the precision of the four kickers.

That victory ensured Arsenal made a step many would have considered predictable, but the point of a team on the up is that they still have to go and do it. Arteta was inevitably asked after the game about whether they can be Champions League winners. He said there is still a “mountain to climb”.

Now in March, from the top of the league, they can see the summit. That is something people wouldn’t have said about Arsenal as recently as 18 months ago. It shows the steps they’ve taken.